Today In Charleston History: June 3

1812-War of 1812

John C. Calhoun introduced a bill in Congress supporting war against Great Britain. As chairmen of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Calhoun wrote, “The honor of a nation is its life. Deliberately to abandon it, is to commit an act of political suicide.” Calhoun was described as “the young Hercules who carried the war on his shoulders.” 

1850-Road to Secession.

One hundred seventy-six delegates from Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee, met at McKendree Methodist Church in Nashville for nine days to consider a possible course of action if the United States Congress decided to ban slavery in the new territories being added to the country as a result of Westward Expansion and the Mexican-American War. 


Robert Barnwell Rhett

With the death of John C. Calhoun in March 1850, radical secessionists, called “fire-eaters” including Robert Barnwell Rhett, Maxcy Gregg, James H. Adams, David F. Jamison, and Daniel Wallace, demanded that South Carolina secede, regardless of the course adopted by other slaveholding states. Cooperationists, meanwhile, professed their willingness to secede but argued that separate secession would leave South Carolina isolated and impotent. The fire-eaters were extreme advocates of southern rights. They walked out on the Nashville convention in 1850.

Most of this was in response to the Wilmot Proviso, a congressional proposal to ban slavery in the territory gained in the Mexican War, and the so-called Compromise of 1850, a series of measures maneuvered through Congress in an attempt to pacify both northern and southern interests. South Carolina secessionists brought their state to the brink of disunion but were disappointed by the growing acceptance of the Compromise of 1850 across the South. Procompromise Whigs and Democrats successfully played on party loyalty to wean southern states away from the notion of a southern party committed solely to the defense of slavery—a goal to which much of South Carolina was committed.

The convention adjourned without taking any action against the Union, and the issue of secession was temporarily tabled.

1864Bombardment of Charleston.

Gus Smythe, a member of the Confederate Signal Corps in Charleston, wrote to his sister, Sarah Anne, about the Union shelling from his perch in St. Michael’s Church steeple:

They are now using a very heavy gun, & the roar of the shells as they fly on their path of destruction is really awful. One struck quite close to the Steeple this morning just as I left, in Broad Street, between King and Meeting … Strange that these shells never give me a moments thought now. I hear them coming & they all seem a matter of course, & I pay no attention to them at all.

Gus Smythe

Gus Smythe

Today In Charleston History: January 28

1787 – Marriage

Dr. David Ramsay married Martha Laurens.

Ramsay had been married twice, and tragically lost both wives within a year of being married. Martha was the beloved daughter of Henry Laurens, former President of Continental Congress, and the first American imprisoned in the Tower of London (he was arrested by the British while acting as an agent for Congress raising funds for the Revolution in Europe.) Ramsay met Martha while he was researching his History of the Revolution of South Carolina. 

1861 – Secession 
Pierre Gustave Toutant Beuaregard

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard

P.G.T. Beauregard was removed as Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was the shortest tenure of any superintendent – five days. His orders were revoked when his native Louisiana seceded from the Union. Beauregard protested to the War Department that they had cast “improper reflection upon [his] reputation or position in the Corps of Engineers” by forcing him out as a Southern officer before any hostilities began.

Within a month he resigned his commission and became the first Brigadier General of the Confederate Army. He served in Charleston and ordered the firsts shots of the War be fired at Fort Sumter. 

1866 – Civil War

The melted fragments of St. Michael’s bells were shipped to England by Fraser, Trenholm and Company. 

The bells for St. Michael’s were cast in 1764, by Lester & Pack in London. When the British evacuated Charleston in 1782 as part of their plunder, the eight bells of St. Michael’s were taken back to England. Shortly afterward, a merchant in London secured the bells and returned them to a grateful Charleston. 

st. michael's - postcard

St. Michael’s Church

In 1864, when Sherman made his march through the South Carolina, Charleston expected to be in his path, so the bells were sent to Columbia for safe-keeping.  Sherman by passed Charleston and burned Columbia, the state capital. The shed in which the bells were stored was burned and the bells were reduced into molten slag. The metal was salvaged and the bells were sent to London to be recast by Lester & Pack – today in history.The bells were returned in 1868 and resumed their place in the church.

In 1989, the bells were damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. They once again were shipped to London for repair. They can be heard chiming in Charleston today on an hourly basis.

Today In Charleston History: December 21

1800 – Birth.

Robert Barnwell Smith (Rhett) was born. 

Rhett2-246x300After entering public life Robert Smith changed his last name for that of his prominent colonial ancestor Colonel William Rhett.  He studied law and became a member of the South Carolina legislature in 1826 and also served as South Carolina attorney general (1832), U.S. representative (1837–1849), and U.S. senator (1850–1852). He was pro-Southern extremist he split (1844) and one of the leading fire-eaters at the Nashville Convention of 1850, which failed to endorse his aim of secession for the whole South.

One of the original “Fire-Eaters” Rhett was was dubbed the ‘Father of Secession’ and called the ‘Lone Star of Disunion’ by his enemies in the Whig Party. In her famous diary, Mary Chesnut called Rhett “the greatest of seceders.”  During the War Rhett continued to express his radical views  through editorials in the Charleston Mercury newspaper, edited by his son. After the other Southern secession in 1861, Rhett was considered one of the leading candidates for President of the Confederate States. bit In the end, he was viewed as too radical for the position and the more conservative Jefferson Davis was selected as chief executive. 

Robert-Barnwell-Rhetts-grave-300x225Rhett was critical of the Confederate Government for many reasons, including government intervention in the economy. He had previously envisioned a Confederacy that also included the Caribbean and even Brazil, but the Confederate States didn’t live up to Rhett’s dream and criticized Jefferson Davis’ adminstration as strongly as he had once criticized Washington, DC. After the War Rhett refused to apply for a Federal pardon. He died of cancer in 1876 and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston.


The Citadel, a military college, was founded in response to the Denmark Vesey rebellion. Charleston City Council established a “municipal force of 150 men … for an arsenal, or a ‘Citadel’ to protect the preserve the public property and safety.”

1891  – Jenkins Orphanage  

Daniel Jenkins preached a sermon at the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church titled “The Harvest is Great by the Laborers Are Few.” It was an appeal to the congregation to “to help these and other unfortunate children.” The congregation was just a poor as Jenkins. The donated money did not last long; it paid for some food and clothing and the rental of a small shack at 660 King Street.

Today In Charleston History: December 20


King George II confirmed the charter of the Two-Bit Club at the Court of St. James. Soon afterward, the name was changed to the South Carolina Society and began including non-French members.

1782 – Slavery

Capt. Joseph Vesey returned to Charlestown with his wife, Kezia, their son John and Vesey’s personal servant / cabin boy, sixteen year-old Telemaque.


The first theatrical performance in Charleston after the British evacuation was held in the Exchange Building.

1800 – Slavery

 A law was passed making it more difficult to emancipate slaves. Also passed was “An Act Respecting Slaves, Free Negroes, Mulattoes and Mestizoes” which permitted blacks to gather for religious worship only after the “rising of the sun and before the going down of the same … a majority [of the congregation] shall be white persons.”

Perhaps thinking that the “Christianization [sic] of the city’s black labor force would have a stabilizing effect,”  the white authorities ignored late night church meetings among all black congregations for many years.


The South Carolina Jockey Club was formed.

1860 – Secession

On this day, a secession convention meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, unanimously adopted an ordinance dissolving the connection between South Carolina and the United States of America.

Click here to read the Charleston Mercury’s account of secession. 

The convention had been called by the governor and legislature of South Carolina once Lincoln’s victory was assured. Delegates were elected on December 6, 1860,  and on December 17 at noon, 169 delegates gathered at the First Baptist Church in the South Carolina capital, Columbia. Included among the delegates were four former governors, four former U.S. Senators, judges, and more than 100 planters.

first baptist columbia

First Baptist Church, Columbia SC Courtesy of Library Of Congress

David J. Jamison was chosen chairman of the convention. Jamison, a planter of 2,000 acres and seventy slaves opened the convention by quoting Georges-Jacques Danton, leader of the French Revolution, urging the delegates “To dare! And dare again! And without end dare!” The fact that Danton was beheaded for his radical leadership went unacknowledged by the delegates.

A resolution was agreed upon that “South Carolina should forthwith secede” and an ordinance be drafted “to accomplish this purpose” was passed. After that, the members began to clamor for adjournment and move the convention to Charleston. Historically, the reason given has always been of a small pox outbreak in Columbia. However, many of the delegates complained about the “meager accommodations in Columbia.” Charleston, however, offered luxurious hotels and the opulent homes of friends. As John A. Inglis, a delegate from Chesterfield County exclaimed, “Is there any spot in South Carolina more fit for political agitation?”

While the argument about moving the convention was being held, Charleston delegates had already wired home, and given orders to secure Institute Hall, and as many rooms at the Mills House that could be procured. William Porcher Miles, however, thought that moving after a day was a mistake. He told the delegates, “We would be sneered at. It would be asked … is this chivalry of South Carolina? They are prepared to face the world, but they run away from the smallpox.”

 However, the delegates voted to adjourn and make the seven-and-one-half hour train trip to Charleston together. The Columbia-based newspaper, South Carolinian, the next day published this story:


By a letter from New York, there is reason to apprehend that the Lincoln men have been gathering up all the rags they can find from the small-pox hospital, and intend an incursion in the South, to chase the secession conventions and legislature from place to place until they are made powerless.   

In the late morning hours, the exhausted, red-eyed delegates arrived at the Charleston rail depot, greeted by the sound of drums, and a fifteen-gun salute from the Washington Light Infantry. They were led down Meeting Street into town by a military escort. Crowds lined the street, “ladies wore white cotton ‘secession bonnets’ with streamers decorated by … palmetto trees and a lone gold star.” The Palmetto Flag flew from almost every house and business. They marched past the Secession Pole in front of the Charleston Hotel. A “Secession Gun” had already been erected on East Bay, “to be fired on ratification of the ordinance. The gunpowder had been stored by a Charleston lady since the nullification crisis three decades before.”

secssion hall - frank leslie

South Carolina Institute Hall on Meeting Street. Harper’s Weekly illustration

Word passed through the city that the convention would reconvene at 4:00 P.M. at Institute Hall, now being called by the locals as “Secession Hall.” With this festive atmosphere as the background, Rhett, Jr. paid a call to the British consul Robert Bunch to discuss how the English government would treat a Southern Confederacy. Bunch wondered if the confederacy would reopen the African slave trade which, he claimed, the English government “views with horror.” Rhett, Jr., filled with the powerful excitement of the moment, replied:

No Southern State or Confederacy will ever be brought to negotiate upon such a subject. To prohibit the Slave Trade would be virtually to admit the institution of slavery is an evil and a wrong, instead of, as the South believes, a blessing of the African Race and a system of labor appointed by God.

 At 4:00 p.m., Rev. Richard Furman re-opened the convention with a prayer. The only business conducted that afternoon was a motion by Barnwell Rhett that “a committee be formed to prepare an address to the people of the Southern States.” The delegates, however, felt the hall was “too commodious … to debate intelligently.” The presence of several thousand rowdy spectators obviously changed the atmosphere of the hall from solemnity to celebratory. They decided to meet the next morning, delegates only, at St. Andrews Hall on Broad Street.  

 The Mercury’s front page exclaimed:

The excitement here is a deep, calm feeling … [the city] may be said to swarm with armed men [but] we are not a mobocracy here, and believe in law, order, and obedience to authority, civil and military.          

Issac W. Hayne, the state’s attorney general, called for secession commissioners to be sent to other states, to urge them to join South Carolina. He called for each commissioner to carry a copy of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession, before it was even approved.

While the whites were celebrating, among the free blacks in Charleston, the exodus, which had started in September, continued. James D. Johnson, on Coming Street, was preparing his two houses for sale. He wrote, “I only want to beautify the exterior so as to attract Capitalists.” His son wrote, “It is now a fixed fact that we must go.”

 At 11:00 a.m. the delegates met at St Andrew’s Hall. A delegate proposed that should “sit with closed doors,” and Sen. James Chesnut protested. He claimed that “a popular body should sit with the eyes of the people upon them.” He then suggested they move back to Institute Hall. John Richardson argued to Chesnut:

I protest. If there is one sentiment predominant over all others, and truly the mind of the people of Charleston, it is that this Convention should proceed! 

The days were shut, locked and guarded by Charleston police. All the citizens could do was wait with the patience of a child on Christmas eve. An afternoon parade by the Vigilant Rifles and the Washington Light Infantry occupied some of the afternoon. They stopped in front of South Carolina Society Hall on Meeting Street, where Mayor Charles Macbeth presented a flag to Captain S. Y. Tipper “sewn by a number of the fair daughters of Carolina.” Capt. Tipper toasted Fort Moultrie:

It is ours by inheritance. It stands upon the sacred soil of Carolina, and the spirit of our patriotic fathers hover about it. Infamy to the mercenaries [Federal troops] that fire the first gun against the children of its revolutionary defenders.     

 The day ended, and no news from the convention. No ordinance yet.

August 20, 1860: Thursday morning, forty-five days after Lincoln’s election.

Nina Glover, in Charleston, wrote to her daughter, Mrs. C. J. Bowen, “The Union is being dissolved in tears. The feeling exhibited was intense; each man, through the day, as he met his neighbor, anxiously asked if the Ordinance had yet passed.”

By mid-morning a large crowd of thousands had gathered on Broad Street in front of St. Andrew’s Hall. The Charleston police guard stood in front of the closed and locked doors. 


St. Andrews Hall, 118 Broad Street. Courtesy of Library of Congress

The ordinance, written by Christopher Memminger, was a simple, but direct statement. John Ingliss claimed that it meant: “in the fewest and simplest words possible to be uses … all that is necessary to effect the end proposed and no more.”

 The call of the roll started at 1:07 P.M. and ended at 1:15, with every delegate voting “yea,” a unanimous vote – eight minutes to vote to “dissolve” the Union. From a window at St. Andrew’s a signal was flashed to the crowd. Then, according to Rev. Anthony Toomer Porter:

 A mighty shout arose. It rose higher and higher until it was the roar of a tempest. It spread from end to end of the city, for all were of one mind. No man living could have stood the excitement.

The Mercury had received a draft copy of the ordinance, by 1:20 P.M., five minutes after the vote concluded, the “extra” was on the streets. During the day, tens of thousands of copies of the “extra” were printed.  Perry O’Bryan’s telegraph office wired the news to the rest of the nation.


Upon the signing of the Ordinance, all the church bells in the city began to ring. James Petigru asked a passerby, “Where’s the fire?” The man responded, “Mr. Petigru, there is no fire; those are the joy bells in honor of the passage of the Ordinance of Secession.”

 Petigru responded, “I tell you there is a fire. They have this day set a blazing torch to the temple of constitutional liberty, and please God, we shall have no more peace forever.”    

Across the city, celebrations continued through the day. Elderly men donned the uniforms of their volunteer units and marched, shouting the news to all the neighborhoods. A man in a golden helmet trotted a horse around the city, a copy of the ordinance held aloft. Men gathered around Calhoun’s grave and vowed to “devote their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, to the cause of South Carolina independence.”

The text of the Ordinance:

The State of South Carolina

At a Convention of the People of the State of South Carolina, begun and holden at Columbia on the Seventeenth day of December in the year or our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty and thence continued by adjournment to Charleston, and there by divers adjournments to the Twentieth day of December in the same year –

An Ordinance To dissolve the Union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled “The Constitution of the United States of America.”

We, the People of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the Ordinance adopted by us in Convention, on the twenty-third day of May in the year of our Lord One Thousand Seven hundred and eight-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United State of America was ratified, and also all Acts and parts of Acts of the General Assembly of this State, ratifying amendment of the said Constitution, are here by repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of “The United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.

Done at Charleston, the twentieth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty.

Jacob Shirmer, a Union man like Petigru, prophetically wrote in his diary:

This is the commencement of the dissolution of the Union that has been the pride and glory of the whole world, and after a few years, we will find the beautiful structure broke up into as many pieces as there are now States, and jealously and discord will be all over the land.

Robert Gourdin wrote to John W. Ellis, governor of North Carolina:

Before the sun sets this day, South Carolina will have assumed the powers delegated to the federal government and taken her place among the nations as an independent power. God save the State.

We may, if possible, avoid collision with the general government, while we negotiate the dissolution of our situation with the Union. I apologize for the brevity of this … It is written at the dinner table amid conversation, wine and rejoicing.     

At 6:30 p.m. the secession delegates lined up on Broad Street in front of St. Andrew’s Hall, and through the gas lamp glow, marched east to Meeting Street, turned left and marched past Hibernian Hall, the Mills House and arrived at the front doors of Institute (Secession) Hall. The delegates entered the hall, to the roar of applause and cheers from more than 3,000 Charlestonians, packed into the building.  One of the attendants was eighteen-year old Augustine Smythe, the son of Presbyterian minister, Rev. Thomas Smythe, who was crammed into the corner of the upper gallery. Also in the gallery was Virginian Edmund Ruffin and British consul Robert Bunch.

circular church - teetotal

Photo of Meeting Street with 1806 version of Circular Church steeple and portico and SC Institute Hall, c 1860.

 On the stage was a lone table, flanked by two potted palmetto trees. A banner on the stage read “Built from The Ruins.” After the delegates were seated, Rev. John Bachman offered a prayer where he asked God for “wisdom on high for the leaders … forced by fanaticism, injustice, and oppression” to secede. Then a copy of the ordinance, or, as the Mercury called it, “the consecrated parchment,” was read aloud and, as the Mercury breathlessly reported:

On the last word – “dissolved” – those assembled could contain themselves no longer, and a shout that shook the very building, reverberating, long-continued, rose to Heaven, and ceased on with the loss of breath.


South Carolina Institute Hall, street view, (Harper’s Weekly)

Upon the signing of the Ordinance of Secession, all the church bells in Charleston began to ring. James Petigru asked a passerby, “Where’s the fire?” The man responded, “Mr. Petigru, there is no fire; those are the joy bells in honor of the passage of the Ordinance of Secession.”

 Petigru responded, “I tell you there is a fire. They have this day set a blazing torch to the temple of constitutional liberty, and please God, we shall have no more peace forever.” Late in the day, Petigru was again asked about secession and famously remarked, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”


Inside South Carolina Institute (Secession) Hall. From Frank Leslie’s Newspaper. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The ordinance was then placed on the stage table, and one-by-one, the delegates stepped forward to sign. Over the next two hours the delegates signed the Ordinance of Secession, and as politicians are apt to do, offered a few remarks on the “monumental occasion.” Ruffin wrote, “no one was weary, and no one left.”

After the last signature, Chairmen Jamison held the document above his head and exclaimed, “I proclaim the State of South Carolina an Independent Com-monwealth!” At that, the crowd rushed the stage, and frantically removed souvenir fronds from the palmetto trees. Augustine Smythe, slid down a pillar to the main floor, joined the scrum. He managed to not only get a palmetto frond souvenir, but also removed the pen and blotter used to sign the document. These items today are in the collection at the Confederate Museum, housed in Market Hall on Meeting Street.

The raucous celebration spilled into the Charleston streets, with men whooping and shooting pistols in the air. Bonfires in tar barrels, were lit on street corners across the city. Edmund Ruffin wrote, “The bands played on and on, as if there were no thought of ceasing.”

A teenager named Augustus Smythe procured a seat in the balcony of Charleston’s South Carolina Institute Hall on the night of December 20, 1860.  Over the next three hours Smythe watched the members of the South Carolina legislature sign the Ordinance of Secession, officially removing the state of South Carolina from the Union and establishing an independent republic, ultimately called the Confederate States of America. The raucous celebration after that historic event spilled into the Charleston streets, with men whooping, drinking whiskey and shooting pistols in the air. Smythe had the calm foresight to make his way through the crowd to the stage and remove the inkwell and pen which had been used to sign the Ordinance. These items today are in the collection at the Confederate Museum, housed in Market Hall on Meeting Street.

secssion, mills house

Rally on Meeting Street, in front of Mills House, 1861. From Frank Leslie’s Newspaper. Courtesy of the Library of Congress